Last Saturday I had the opportunity to participate in a Candidates Forum as a panelist asking potential new Puerto Princesa lawmakers their views on women and health. Other sectors were present to ask questions included Youth and Education, Agriculture, the Environment, Tourism, and Business. Because we had limited time, each sector could only ask 2-3 questions, and candidates each took one minute to provide their answers.

I posted about this event on my personal Facebook page, and several people asked me how it went. To be perfectly honest, I felt quite discouraged at the answers I was given to my questions on how these leaders would address Puerto Princesa’s problems of teen pregnancy and HIV.

During my first panel which included candidates running independently as well as those running with Mayor Bayron’s current administration, many of the answers relating to HIV focused on the idea that tourists are the driving force increasing our HIV incidence. Because it wasn’t a debate or talk-show format, I could not clarify that our HIV infections in Puerto Princesa are local and that most of the people contracting HIV are not getting it from foreigners.

For my second panel which was comprised of Team Aprub candidates running with Mayoral Candidate Marcaida, I clarified that HIV is here, it is home grown, it is not being brought in foreigners, then asked how they would address it. Mr. Luis Marcaida said he would continue to support the current programs of City Health. Ms. Cristina Buenafe, who is a former principal, stressed the need for education about HIV even at the elementary school level. But beyond these two concrete statements, everyone talked about the need to return to religion, and to strengthen families. Several of them promised to do this if elected.

I so badly wanted to ask… how do you strengthen families? Are they going to go to individual families and speak with them about their values and how they communicate and what they are doing about HIV? Will they go to every single Puerto Princesa family? If they aren’t going to go family-to-family but instead will focus on programs to support families, what would those look like? Do they really think a seminar telling families that it is important to strengthen them will do anything at all? It seems like such a cop-out answer, because realistically, to me it means they wont do anything to address the problem.

Among the independent candidates, Ms. Tehani Hernandez impressed me the most. She was the only candidate of all to say we need to teach people about safe sex. Mr. Matthew Mendoza also said that he supported education for young people, and Mr. Roy Ventura added that City Health would continue its activities and partnerships with NGOs like mine.

Of all the candidates, not one talked about the need for HIV testing so people would know their status. And while Ms. Hernandez talked about safe sex, she did not explicitly mention condoms, and no one else did either. This is dangerous and depressing as it mirrors the country’s inadequate response to dealing with HIV. We cannot tackle HIV without aggressively promoting condom use. But no one wants to promote them.

I think that an RH orientation for newly elected leaders after the elections would also be good. There is clearly a lot they don’t know about HIV and teen pregnancy. One candidate actually answered, HIV comes from greed, lust and a desire for material things. Uhm, no. HIV comes from unprotected sexual intercourse with someone who is HIV+, by being given a blood transfusion of HIV+ blood, or from HIV+ mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth. Maybe if the candidates were clearer on the root causes of HIV and teen pregnancy, they might have more concrete plans that might actually change things for the better.

The forum was interesting and I enjoyed learning about the candidates views on various topics. If youre still undecided on your candidates, I recommend checking out Palawan News Facebook Page for a recording of the event.

I haven’t decided on all my votes yet but so far my top pick for councilor is Ms. Tehani Hernandez. She is clearly very smart and is a newcomer to politics so will have fresh ideas. I love that her platform is health and that she is a proponent for women and is a woman herself. I will also vote for Mr. Matthew Mendoza and Ms. Cristina Buenafe because they support educating young people on reproductive health. Mr. Roy Ventura also gets my vote because he has worked well with the current administration to strengthen the City Health Department which has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years.

Who are you planning to vote for and why? Lets discuss!

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